#2. City Lights (1931)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
The films of Charlie Chaplin have always had a profound emotional effect on me – they’re truly funny, often innovative, and always full of heart. His 1931 film City Lights is without a doubt one of the most emotionally satisfying experiences in movie history. The romantic comedy has been praised as being one of the greatest movies of all-time, and features one of the most iconic romantic moments ever in its final shot. City Lights sees The Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) meeting and quickly falling in love with the blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherill). That same night, the Tramp thwarts the drunken suicide attempt of an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), and the two return to the Millionaire’s mansion and form something of a unique bond. The next day, the Tramp borrows money from the Millionaire to buy all the flowers from the Flower Girl. After learning that the Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) will be evicted from their home because they cannot afford to pay rent, the Tramp takes it upon himself to earn money for the pair. He takes a job as a street sweeper, takes part in a fixed boxing match, and once again becomes involved with the Millionaire. City Lights is as romantic a film as has ever been made – featuring Chaplin’s Tramp performing the most selfless actions imaginable for people who don’t even know of his existence. It’s a deeply moving story, and Chaplin uses the Tramp’s selfless nature as a launching point for some truly hilarious slapstick gags, including the aforementioned boxing match – which goes horribly wrong – and the scene where he saves the life of the Millionaire. Chaplin takes full advantage of the silent film medium, even though most of the world had since moved on to talking pictures – the silent film was Chaplin’s wheelhouse and he makes it seems as relevant as ever. Chaplin’s performance as the Tramp is as always intensely physical and goofy, with the character never seeming to be able to get ahead – he is constantly the butt of the joke, despite being the pinnacle of all that is good. Not only is City Lights still incredibly funny after all these years, but it’s also deeply moving and sad in many moments. The situation that the blind Flower Girl and her Grandmother find themselves in often seems hopeless. Even when the Tramp is making headway in making money for the two, they have no idea of his actions – it isn’t until the very end of City Lights that the two parties make formal contact. Chaplin’s film is as always humanitarian and full of themes of romance, justice, and happiness – nobody had heart quite like Charlie Chaplin. The fact that City Lights makes me weep like a baby in its closing moments is testament to how much power the film holds – the entire journey feels so worth it in the end. Only a master like Chaplin could have you crying tears of laughter one moment, and tears of sadness the next. City Lights is another example on my list of a perfect romantic comedy – it might even be the ultimate date movie. If City Lights doesn’t make you feel something deep down inside, then I’m not totally convinced you’re human at all.
#50. The Great White Silence (1924)
Directed by: Herbert Ponting
Written by: Herbert Ponting
Starring: Robert Falcon Scott
Herbert Ponting’s pioneering documentary about Antarctica is definitely the newest addition to my list of favorite films, and for good reason. The Great White Silence tells the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated voyage to Antarctica, where the Captain and four crewmates would die of exposure. Herbert Ponting documented much of the journey to Antarctica, up to the point of Captain Scott and his crew leaving to reach the South Pole in order to beat the Norwegian team attempting to do the same. The events that take place on the voyage to the South Pole are told through still photographs and title cards, as Herbert Ponting was left with the rest of the crew at base camp. The film tells the tragic story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew with the utmost respect, even without any real visual support – the final act of the film features some of the most heartbreaking storytelling I’ve ever seen in a documentary. The Great White Silence became one of the first documentaries to capture penguins, seals, and killer whales on camera in their natural habitats, and the first to shoot the unlivable continent of celluloid. Ponting also employs the use of comedy and wit in his title cards, telling the story of the journey in a playful, fun way in order to hook audiences immediately. The tonal shift in the final act of the film is fitting and classy, rather than jarring or unfitting – it works perfectly in telling the story of the Terra Nova expedition. The Great White Silence’s breakneck pacing and playful attitude makes it truly stand out among other classic documentaries, making it stand out among its peers. It’s a truly special film in its epic scope and Ponting’s eye for storytelling, and one of the most unique documentary films ever made. To read my full thoughts about The Great White Silence, check out my Doctober review of the film here.
#53. The Gold Rush (1925)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale
Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is one of the most recognizable and endearing in Hollywood history, starring in a wide variety of full length and short films from the 1910’s through the 1930’s. Chaplin’s 1925 film The Gold Rush is my personal favorite appearance by the Tramp, if only because it combines every element that make his films so great. The Gold Rush sees The Lone Prospector (Charlie Chaplin) get lost in a blizzard while searching for gold during the Klondike Gold Rush. He seeks refuge in a cabin, where he meets wanted criminal Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). The men quickly grow ravenous and turn on one another, until a ferocious bear enters the cabin and is subsequently killed, providing the three with food. From there, the Long Prospector gets involved with a woman named Georgia (George Hale), and help Big Jim find his gold deposit after a double-cross by Black Larsen. The Gold Rush is a hilarious and inventive comedy that has been canonized in movie history because it features so many iconic scenes – The Lone Prospector cooking and eating his own shoe, Big Jim and Black Larsen seeing the Prospector as a man-sized chicken, the cabin tilting on the very edge of a cliff, the bread roll dance, and so many more. Chaplin once said that The Gold Rush is the film he wanted to be remembered for, and I can absolutely see why. It’s a film he kept tooling with for years after its release, adding narration and re-releasing it in the 1940’s. Both versions of the film are hilarious and highly satisfying, and I can’t say that I have a preference in version. The re-released version is slightly shorter than the original, but it’s not a significant enough difference for me to prefer it. The Gold Rush’s spoofing of the Klondike Gold Rush and historical events like the Donner Party blend together perfectly in the film’s chilly blizzard atmosphere, and the film’s emotional weight in its last half works just as well. The Prospector’s vying for the higher class Georgia is full of memorable moments, and adds a great deal of much needed sympathy to Chaplin’s character. When the two are finally brought together it feels satisfying, even though it doesn’t match love stories found in other Chaplin films (with City Lights being the most memorable and emotional). If you’ve never seen a Charlie Chaplin film before, then The Gold Rush is absolutely the place to start. It’s fast-paced, iconic, incredibly funny, and sweet in a way only Chaplin can accomplish. There’s a reason the man himself was so enamored by The Gold Rush – it’s fantastic.
#67. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Directed by: Buster Keaton
Written by: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane
The very best of Buster Keaton’s many incredible comedies, Sherlock Jr. combines everything lovable about the man and his movies into one quick, hilarious, and innovative film. While it may not feature the grand set pieces of The General, or the barrage of hilarity of Seven Chances, Sherlock Jr. features enough heart and soul to rival even Charlie Chaplin’s best films. The 1924 comedy classic sees Buster Keaton as a film projectionist studying to be a detective, who is vying for the affections of a beautiful woman (Kathryn McGuire). The Projectionist isn’t alone in his feelings for the beautiful girl, as he is forced to compete with the handsome, well-to-do “local sheik” (Ward Crane). One day while screening a film about the heist of a pearl necklace, the Projectionist falls asleep and dreams of entering into the film as “Sherlock Jr.”, a detective who is going to crack the case. Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is an incredible display of early movie special effects, with the Projectionist’s dream self stepping out of his physical body in an impressive sequence, stepping into a variety of different scenes before finally setting into the story of the film being projected. Another impressive instance of these effects is a moment when Keaton jumps into a suitcase and disappearing – using a trapdoor and some trick camera techniques. Buster Keaton himself delivers his usual brilliant deadpan comedic performance, never letting anything taking place phase him. Often Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is completely oblivious to the actions of those trying to harm him, ramping up the laughs and taking advantage of Keaton’s deadpan nature. The story is very simple (the film only runs somewhere around 45 minutes), but manages to be as sweet and satisfying as its full-length contemporaries. No scene is wasted, but almost every minute of Sherlock Jr. features some great laughs. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see a silent comedy, I can’t possibly think of a better starting place than Sherlock Jr.
#78. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Written by: Carl Mayer (based on The Excursion to Tilsit by Hermann Sudermann)
Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
1927 marked the release of the first full-length film featuring synchronized sound in the form of The Jazz Singer, effectively rendering the silent long-standing film industry irrelevant. Famed German director F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans stood as one of the last major films of the silent era. Silent films would continue to be released for a number of years while major Hollywood studios worked to iron out the many kinks in synchronized sound, but many historians agree that Sunrise may be the definitive film of the medium’s last years. Murnau’s film won the first and only Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, which would be recognized as something of a runner-up prize to first ever Best Picture winning Wings. Sunrise follows a Man (George O’Brien) as he carries out an affair with a city woman (Margaret Livingston). The woman tells the Man that he should sell his farm and come live his life with her in the city. They decide that in order to do this, the Man must first murder his Wife (Janet Gaynor). After a failed attempt to drown his Wife, the Man has a sudden change of heart and the two spend an eventful evening together in the city. Sunrise tells a beautiful and moving story of love, regret, and temptation, but with unparalleled style and grace. Murnau’s experience with German expressionism is apparent throughout the majority of Sunrise, combining rich cinematography with elaborate, exaggerated set design. Sunrise is a true testament to the raw power of silent cinema, unfortunately arriving near the end of the medium’s lifespan. Murnau did for movies of the late 1920’s what Citizen Kane did for the medium in the 40’s, employing the use of superimposition’s, tracking shots, and forced perspective. It’s certainly a slow-burn when compared to the romantic films of today, but Sunrise packs a tremendous emotional punch in its many touching, genuine moments. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is everything that a silent film could possibly be, and served as a fitting farewell for the relevance of the style.